Henry Kissinger now joins the list of prominent figures whose efforts at drafting a peace plan for Ukraine reveal only their delusion about the nature of the conflict. In his plan, the glow of fantasy is fueled by nostalgia for Golden Age nostrums that have no cure-all value for the war that’s actually happening.
In an article for this weekend’s Spectator, the former statesman-historian proposes a cease-fire and a return to the pre-invasion borders of this past February. In other words, he is suggesting that Russia withdraw all its troops from the areas of Ukraine that it has conquered this year—but not from Crimea or the thin slice of eastern Ukraine that it annexed or occupied back in 2014. The disposition of those territories, he argues, should be negotiated or settled through an internationally supervised referendum.
This idea is neither new nor particularly ingenious. Kissinger notes that he proposed the idea in May; others put forth similar ideas before then. There is—and always has been—just one problem: Russian President Vladimir Putin has absolutely no interest in going along with it. He has no interest in withdrawing his troops, an act that he would see, quite properly, as a defeat. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, also quite properly, has no interest in a cease-fire—which the Russian army would use as an opportunity to regroup and mobilize—unless Putin first withdraws all his troops.
In other words, the idea is a nonstarter, the article a complete waste of time—except in one sense: It exposes the limits of a way of thinking about international politics, at least as it applies to the Russia-Ukraine war, and it exposes the limits of Kissinger’s relevance to the 21st century.
Kissinger is 99 years old. It is natural, even for those a decade or two younger than that, to pine for the glory days of yore, or at least to view present crises through the prism of a more orderly past. Out of power now for nearly a half-century, eager to preserve his status as a public intellectual worthy of attention and influence, Kissinger must look back with fondness on the work that first marked his standing as a serious scholar—his Ph.D. dissertation, which he turned into the 1957 book A World Restored. In it, he recounted the tale of how the two great statesmen of the early 19th century, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich and British Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh, carved out a new European order at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic wars—an order that kept the peace for 100 years.
It remains a gripping book and, more important, a template for the branch of International Realism—Realpolitik—that sees balance-of-power politics as the key to peace in all times. Viewed in this context, Kissinger’s Spectator article is an attempt to impose the lessons of his dissertation on the war in Ukraine. The problem is, the two don’t fit.
Kissinger begins his article with a brief rundown of the First World War. It began in 1914, when, as he notes, Europe’s leaders sleepwalked into a conflict that none of them would have entered if they’d foreseen the consequences four years later. It started almost by accident. The assassination of the Austrian crown prince triggered an automatic escalation, as the leaders of two sets of alliances activated their rigid schedules for troop mobilization—Germany attacking Belgium in order to defeat France, France reacting accordingly, and other countries entering the fray, as their commitments dictated. Two years into the war, the combatant nations, mired in the stalemate of trench warfare, sought mediation from the United States, but President Woodrow Wilson held off for another two years, until after his reelection, by which time another 2 million soldiers had been slaughtered.
Kissinger then asks: “Does the world today find itself at a comparable turning point in Ukraine as winter imposes a pause on large-scale military operations there?”
The question is nonsensical. There are no parallels whatsoever between the wars of 1914 and 2022. The present war started when Russia invaded Ukraine, period. Russia was not provoked to invade by any interlocking alliances. (Putin may have feared that Ukraine might join NATO, but there was absolutely no such prospect on the horizon.) Ukraine was not tethered to any alliance at all. (The U.S. and its NATO allies gradually aided Ukraine with weapons and intelligence, as Russia intensified its aggression, but they have resolutely avoided fighting directly.) And neither Russia nor Ukraine is beseeching anyone to stop the war; the leaders of both countries think they can still gain an advantage—Ukraine by pummeling the Russian army on the battlefield, Russia by pummeling Ukrainian cities with drones and missiles.
Nonetheless, Kissinger goes on:
I have repeatedly expressed my support for the allied military effort to thwart Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.
These are chin-scratching words, but they mean nothing. First, there’s the evasive phrase “the time is approaching,” allowing Kissinger to keep arguing his case even if the time hasn’t yet arrived several months from now. Second, the “strategic changes” he mentions are Ukraine’s emergence as a major nation and its de facto alliance with (if not quite membership in) NATO. OK, but it isn’t at all clear how this improves the chances for peace.
But his main point comes with the next sentence, about integrating these changes “into a new structure.” It’s complete gobbledygook, unless you read it with Kissinger’s dissertation in mind. Kissinger wants to be the new Metternich, who molds a new European order through the restoration of the old order’s principles.
His peace plan—the cease-fire, followed by Russia’s withdrawal from the territories taken after February, which would then be followed by negotiations over the land annexed or occupied in 2014—is but a means to this end. He states the point plainly:
The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order.
This last sentence is a mind-blower. “Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order”? “Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order”? What is Kissinger talking about? Right now (when Kissinger posits that the time for diplomacy “is approaching”), the actual existing Russia—personified in Putin—has no desire for a place in such an order. Putin disputes the existence, much less the freedom, of a Ukrainian nation. He dreams of restoring the Great Russian Empire of Peter the Great, not some Metternichian vision of Europe; a revived Congress of Vienna is not a part of his vocabulary, much less his agenda.
Kissinger seems not to realize this. “For all its propensity to violence,” he writes, “Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded.”
This, too, is an astonishing statement. He is correct in dismissing the views of some that Russia should be reduced to impotence, even broken up into several smaller states, by this war. That would unleash several civil wars, which, given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, could turn catastrophic for the globe. Nonetheless, Russia has hardly been a consistent force for peace or stability in the past 500 years. Its genuinely “decisive contributions to the global equilibrium” came during the Cold War but at the expense of freedom and prosperity for hundreds of millions of people, including its own citizenry. More to the point, Putin is not interested in a balance of power now—not in one that contributes to equilibrium. The world he wants restored is one in which Russia dominates a vast stretch of the map, including all of Ukraine.
Kissinger concludes, “The quest for peace and order has two components that are sometimes treated as contradictory: the pursuit of elements of security and the requirement for acts of reconciliation. If we cannot achieve both, we will not be able to reach either.”
He is right. The problem is, Putin has an outlandish vision of security and no desire for reconciliation. That is the problem we face with this war. Kissinger’s peace plan does nothing to solve it.